Thursday evening was supposed to see a new rocket – United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan – roar to life for a first-time engine test fire at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.
But during the countdown at Launch Complex 41 Thursday afternoon, ULA teams “observed a delayed response from the booster engine ignition system,” the company said in a statement. The issue meant that countdown procedures ahead of the ignition of two Blue Origin-built BE-4 engines at the business end of the company’s new rocket had to be halted.
The roughly 200-foot rocket will have to be rolled back into ULA’s nearly 300-foot protective Vertical Integration Facility for technicians to assess the booster’s ignition system. According to company CEO Tory Bruno, the timeline suffered setbacks early in the day due to inclement weather.
The test, called a flight readiness firing, is a critical milestone the company must ace ahead of the debut flight of the Vulcan, which arrived on the Space Coast in January. Since then, ULA teams have been putting it through the testing paces, checking out everything from the fit on the pad to filling its tanks with propellants and running through mock countdowns.
“FRF is really about confirming the operational readiness of the integrated system: launch vehicle, ground systems, facilities and the associated software. In addition, we will demonstrate the ability to successfully execute the engine start sequence and validate our hot-fire abort response procedures,” Dillon Rice, ULA’s Vulcan launch conductor, said in a release.
When teams are able to perform the test, it will help pave the way for the rocket’s debut launch later this summer.
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A little rain hasn’t been the only setback Vulcan has faced in its testing campaign.
The rocket uses a mix of liquid natural gas (LNG) and liquid oxygen (LOX) as propellants, and during a tanking test on the pad earlier this month, teams found an issue when flowing propellants through an ignitor on one of the BE-4 engines. To address it, the rocket was rolled back to the Vertical Integration Facility to “adjust a handful of parameters and set points for a reliable (flight readiness firing) count,” Bruno said via Twitter.
According to Bruno, teams run through terminal count and “restrain the rocket on the launch platform, run the engines up short of full power, and hold for several seconds” to perform the test.
After the test fire, the rocket will be emptied of propellants, fully secured, and returned to the Vertical Integration Facility. Two solid rocket boosters and its payload will be installed on the next-generation rocket ahead of the first demonstration mission, which could happen as early as next month.
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Meet Vulcan and the payload for its first mission
Vulcan is designed to replace ULA’s entire fleet of rockets, which at the beginning of its development in 2014, included Delta IV, Delta IV Heavy, and Atlas V. Though no longer offered for new missions, Atlas V and Delta IV Heavy are the only legacy ULA rockets still in service. They’re expected to continue flying through the next few years.
Vulcan is bigger, more powerful, and cheaper than the rockets it’s replacing and will launch from the same pad used by Atlas V.
On top of streamlining the company’s products and reducing costs, Vulcan’s use of Blue Origin engines is a national security consideration. Atlas V flies with Russian-made RD-180 engines, a point that has resulted in pressure from various public and private organizations to move to American-made hardware.
Vulcan’s first mission, known as Certification-1, is a test flight to meet certification requirements to launch U.S. Space Force national security missions in the future. Scheduled to fly on Vulcan’s Certification-1 mission are two prototype broadband satellites for Amazon’s Project Kuiper, a proposed constellation of over 3,000 satellites that will provide internet services to customers around the globe like SpaceX’s Starlink.
Also onboard is a payload destined for the moon: Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic’s Peregrine commercial lunar lander. According to NASA, the lander, a part of the agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative, will study the lunar exosphere, regolith, magnetic fields, and radiation and test advanced solar arrays.
The lunar lander will also carry a secondary payload to the surface of the moon for Celestis Memorial Spaceflights. It features 150 capsules carrying ashes, DNA samples, and messages from clients from around the world, including that of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, his wife Majel Barrett Roddenberry, and Star Trek actor James “Scotty” Doohan.
For the latest, visit floridatoday.com/launchschedule.
Contact Jamie Groh at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @AlteredJamie.
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